Chile and Brazil: Class struggles intensify in continent’s strongest economies

The workers’ movement and building powerful mass struggle parties

One of the main parts of the Latin American Summer School was the discussion on the situation in Brazil and Chile. The class struggles in the strongest economies of the continent have taken up speed in the last two years. After their victories in presidential elections, both Michelle Bachelet and Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva both utterly betrayed the people’s hopes by clinging to neo-liberal policies.

The CWI in Brazil, which has made important steps forward over the last few years, with comrades now in the four corners of the continent-like country (see the CWI Brazilian site:, was well represented at the CWI School. The introductions to the discussion were made by Jane Barros, from the Rio de Janeiro branch, and by Patricio Guzmán, from Santiago de Chile.

The introduction on Brazil gave a brief history of Lula’s Workers Party (PT). After the end of the military dictatorship, in the beginning of the 1980’s, two main instruments of the working class were founded: the Brazilian union central, CUT, and the PT. Until 1989, the PT was a radical left party, aiming for socialism and adopting the organization of the working class as its main task. But, since 1989, the main aim became parliamentary successes and, in 2002, Lula was elected president. Thus ended what could be called the ‘second cycle’ of the Workers Party (PT). However, the PT still was the party of the working class, and the 50 million votes Lula got in the 2002 election were a clear sign of the Brazilian masses’ loathing of neo-liberalism and hope for a change of politics that would be truly in their favour.

But Lula had no intent to take this path. He used the traditionally good links the PT has had with the mass organizations of the Brazilian left, like the union, the CUT, the students’ movement, the women’s movement and the landless movement (MST), to control and contain opposition resistance to government cuts. Also, the “bolsa familiar” programme, which gave the poorest sections of the population a very small monthly aid, served to maintain social control over the extremely poor, because even though they continue living miserably, they were better off than before Lula’s presidency.

‘Third cycle’ of the PT

However the pension reform carried through by the Lula government, soon after assuming power, marked the beginning of the ‘third cycle’ of the Workers Party (PT), representing a full turn towards neo-liberal counter-reforms. Thus a movement rose to ‘reconstruct’ the Brazilian left, leading to huge dissatisfaction amongst PT supporters and to the foundation of P-Sol (Socialism and Freedom Party) in 2004. The P-Sol adopted a clear class position and helped to keep the Brazilian left together.

The Brazilian CWI’s activities in P-Sol during the election campaign in 2006 was based on a “no to steps back” position; meaning opposition to the right-wing P-Sol bureaucracy’s atttemtps to water down the party’s socialist programme, which was supposedly , “in order to obtain more votes”. By adopting this position very clearly, the CWI laid the bases for our successes at the 2007 P-Sol congress, when a left current was formed, which has been a focus of attraction for many other left individuals and groups.

The upswing of class struggles in Brazil, in 2007, was reflected on various occasions, one of them being the nationwide meeting on 25 March, in Sao Paulo. Initiated by CONLUTAS and intersindical, two left-wing union associations, these include rank and file unionists, trade unions, the landless movement, and students and the social movements. CONLUTAS, and the above named social forces, launched a campaign for united action and set an agenda of nationwide protests and actions. These included a plebiscite against the next stage of the pension reform, which was organized by rank and file P-Sol activists and was a huge success.

In the light of these developments, it is very clear that 2008 will be a year of even sharper class struggles, with more land occupations by the MST, a stronger women’s movement, a deeper politisation of the students’ movement and a higher level of strikes.

Many CWI comrades from the north, northeast, southeast and the south of Brazil added to the School discussion. The lessons and conclusions drawn from the work in P-Sol (Socialism and Freedom Party), so far, were the main features of the discussion, as well as the prospects for building CONLUTAS.

2007 was also marked by a process of national mobilisations against the Lula government, with a total of 1.5 million people participating in protests on a day of action against austerity measures. While the Lula government enjoys clear support of the ruling class, and the biggest majority in congress since the end of the military dictatorship, it is incapable of overcoming the divisions and infighting between the different sections of the ruling class. The protests started on 8 March, when Women’s Day mobilizations joined up with the demonstrations against President Bush, and tens of thousands took to the streets in Sao Paulo and in other cities. On 25 March, the social movements, the unions and the students got together to coordinate the fight back. Shortly afterwards, students all over the country occupied campuses and government institutions, in a huge protest wave against educational counter-reforms. The most important step forward, perhaps helped initiate a campaign leading to a foundation congress of CONLUTAS, a confederation of the most militant sections of the Brazilian trade unions, which is due to take place in April, this year. Also importantly, a demonstration on 24 October, in the capital Brasilia – which is very difficult and expensive to access for being situated over 1,000 kilometers in the vastness of inner Brazil – joined 20,000 union and landless activists.

P-Sol reference point for working class

The development of the P-Sol (Socialism and Freedom Party), since its first congress in June 2007, has been that of a reference point for the working class and its struggles. Despite the course of the P-Sol leadership, which is mainly concerned with elections in 2008 and 2010, the rank and file party members are very militant and organized successful campaigns, such as the plebiscite against the privatization of the Vale do Rio Doce mining company. This means the Brazilian left has avoided atomization, which could easily have occurred after the loss of the Workers Party (PT), as a party representing working people. Looking to the future, it is clear that 2010 will be a crucial year for P-Sol, because Lula cannot compete in the presidential elections for a third time and the PT does not have any other candidate with authority. The other big party of the Brazilian ruling class, the centre-rightwing, PSDB, is still remembered by the masses as the party of the former president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who was responsible of 8 years of neo-liberal cutbacks, before Lula’s first term. Therefore, the Brazilian capitalist class is still uncertain about which party to support. P-Sol (Socialism and Freedom Party) will have a big opportunity in these coming elections. The Brazilian CWI comrades will campaign for a clear socialist voice in elections, in tune with the circumstances in the different P-Sol structures.

The CWI’s principled role since the foundation of P-Sol has allowed the CWI to be seen as a pole of attraction for unbending fighters for genuine socialist ideas. The CWI in Brazil will maintain this profile in the debates preceding the local elections, in 2008, keeping up the struggle for a socialist P-Sol and organizing inner-party resistance to the rightward bureaucracy. It is clear that the Brazilian working class and masses still look to the Socialism and Freedom Party. Our main task is to rebuild the working class movement, and since it is not impossible that the next initiative to form a mass party of the working class will emerge from P-Sol activists, maintaining the CWI’s important position in the party is vital for the next years.

The character of P-Sol has been different to that of many new left formations in Europe. While on the continent many of the parties had a parliamentarian posture from their very beginning, in P-Sol there have been various currents and groups, ranging from revolutionary socialist to social democrat. However, due to the relatively low level of class struggle, in the last years, P-Sol has moved to the right, mainly due to the influx of former left-wing Workers Party (PT) cadres, in 2005, and who used the elections in 2006 to get back on the parliamentary gravy train.

P-Sol rank and file push to the Left

Given the level of class and socialist understanding, in society, in general, the CWI in Brazil argue that a clear socialist position should not be a prerequisite for new members and groups affiliating to P-Sol. To insist on this, would only cut P-Sol off from big sections of workers and youth entering class battles for the first time. On the hand, the CWI making it clear in the inner-party struggles and debates, that P-Sol must strive to adopt a clear revolutionary, socialist programme, which has policies and ideas opened and accessible to working people and youth. This struggle had a major success during the first P-Sol congress, in 2007, with the victory over the well-known party figure, Heloisa Helena, during a controversy over abortion and the women’s right to choose. This showed that the rank and file basis of the P-Sol is not willing to let the big public figures use their personal authority to push through right-wing resolutions.

Speaking of the so-called “bolsa familiar” programme of the Lula government, aimed at giving some financial support to the poorest sectors of Brazilian society, the Brazilian CWI comrades told the School that the programme is usually referred to as the “bolsa miseria” (‘miserable purse’)! This is because it has not done anything to really bring people out of desperate poverty. The programme’s maximum financial aid is 120 Reais per person, per month (around 70 USD), which means it amounts to a means to survival, rather really bettering living conditions.

Comrade Katia Sales, from the Sao Paulo CWI branch, spoke about the 8 March preparations. On this issue there have been divisions between the right-wing of P-SoL and militant CONLUTAS union activists. International Women’s Day is very important in Brazil, not least, because of the double oppression Afro-Brazilian women suffer. So the intention of the rightward P-Sol bureaucracy in keeping protests on a low level on 8 March, was met by the union activists, who do not refrain from struggle, with the attempt to turn P-Sol (Socialism and Freedom Party) into a fighting tool for the working class.

Chile – A new era of struggle

The CWI Latin America School discussion on Chile was introduced by Patricio Guzman from Santiago and followed by discussion. Historically, the Chilean working class has had very strong revolutionary traditions, and powerful organizations of the working class. However, the nature of the transition from the Pinochet dictatorship, combined with international developments, left workers without a mass political party and a weakened trade union movement. A difficult period followed the long years of the dictatorship. There was also an economic growth and a low level of class struggle.

Now a major change is beginning to take place, with a renewed movement of the working class. It is significant that the last two presidents, Ricardo Lagos and Michel Bachelet, both had to go through to a second round in the presidential elections. The governing coalition – Concertacion – which includes the Socialist Party (PSCh) and the Christian Democracy (DC), has increasingly declined in support, and is now divided. At the same time, although the Right has not gained it is now threatening the continuation of the Concertacion government coalition, because of the lack of a mass socialist alternative.

Economic growth is marked by increased inequality. The year 2006 marked a turning point for the Bachalet government. There was more hope in her government than any other since the dictatorship. In 2006, a new generation of school students entered the struggle. Hundreds of schools were occupied. This movement was a watershed. It put into question the entire Chilean neo-liberal ‘model’, which has be heralded as a success throughout the continent. It was striking how the school students took up some of the traditions of the past from the workers movement. Action councils were elected and delegates subject to re-call. The students would not elect leaders but ‘portavoces’ (spokespeople). They insisted that the government negotiate with the entire student council, made up of 100 representatives, rather than allowing 2 or 3 three students to meet the government ministers alone. This movement resulted in the resignation of two government ministers, which was the first time this happened since the end of the dictatorship.

Importantly, this school students’ movement was followed by some very significant workers’ struggles.

Copper workers’ strike

An important strike broke out amongst copper workers and involved important new features of mass struggle that reflected the beginning of the rebuilding of the workers’ movement.

Under labour laws introduced by the dictatorship, unions can only be formed in individual companies rather than industry by industry. This meant negotiations had to take place company by company. The copper company, COLDEC, sub-contracted work to a series of companies. Legally, this meant negotiations between individual unions and companies. In reality, however, the employers were linked together. The sub-contracted copper workers defied the law and linked together also, forcing a national negotiation and agreement. This important strike also saw militant and violent confrontations between copper workers and riot police.

The strike was followed by a strike of forestry workers, who faced brutal repression, resulting in one worker being killed. These workers also won widespread sympathy and support, including from the Mapuche people, who were in struggle, at the same time. The Mapuche also suffered repression, with their leaders being imprisoned and forced to go on a hunger strike protest. The Michel Bachelet government used the ‘anti-terrorist’ laws of the dictatorship against these people. The forestry workers’ strike was then followed by a strike of salmon-packaging workers.

These movements represent a decisive change in the situation in Chile. The Michel Bachelet government is facing a major crisis. It has established a Ministerial Commission for Crisis, and tried to co-opt the trade unions in this process, as a means of using the union leaders to ‘control’ the movement. Reflecting the pressures on the government, five Christian Democracy (DC) Deputies resigned in protest at the policies of the government, using radical rhetoric. These resignations cost the government its majority in the congress.

People’s attitudes are also changing. For example, despite years of propaganda supporting the ‘free market’, one poll showed only 46% think the market is the best system for solving their problems.

Chile is set to suffer a series economic crisis, arising from the turbulence in the world economy, as Chile is dependent on exports. Economic developments and the class and social struggles that have already taken place, means there are now very good opportunities to build the Chilean section of the CWI in 2008.

cwi in Latin America cwi Latin America website

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.